The Oldest Rookie: Williams still going strong | NevadaAppeal.com

The Oldest Rookie: Williams still going strong

There’s “The Rookie,” relief pitcher Jimmy Morris, who in his comeback made it to Major League Baseball as a rookie in his late 30s and was portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the movies.

Then there’s Carson City’s J.R. Williams, who could be referred to as “The Oldest Rookie.” He made his comeback when he was 67 in 2001 and was named as The Rookie of the Year in the Northern California Dwarf Car racing series.

Since then, Williams, who will turn 71 in December, has moved up to midget cars and has made it to the national level where he has qualified to race next month in the first USAC Ford Focus Midget National Races.

Williams raced midget cars from the mid-1950s to 1963 when he gave it up for a job as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.

“I always wanted to live in Hawaii,” Williams said. “But it broke my heart to give up racing.”

Williams compared giving up racing to breaking up with an old girlfriend. “She breaks up with you before your ready,” he said. “That’s how I was with my cars.”

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But after he retired, Williams received the chance to race again. In 2001 he was racing in the Northern California Dwarf Car Association against mostly teenagers, with the youngest being 15, and he went on to win the association’s Rookie of the Year honors that year.

Williams had hurt his back in his previous stint as a racer and he said his wife, Jas, was worried about how returing to racing would affect his back condition. “It’s not going to hurt more in my race car than it would in my living room chair,” Williams said.

It looked like the chance to return to midget racing would be too cost prohibitive. An engine for a big engine midget car costs $48,000 and it needs to be rebuilt after several months at a cost of $10,000.

But then the Ford Focus series came along, providing drivers with the chance to race in midget cars in which engines cost only $8,500 and can run 30 to 40 races before they need to be rebuilt at a cost of $3,400.

The Ford Focus series began with a 20-race season in Southern California and has already grown to include six divisions across the country, including Northern California, New England, Florida and Oklahoma. The Ford Focus cars can run on both dirt and asphalt tracks.

USAC began the series as a stepping stone for young drivers to move up to big engine midget cars and Williams said the series has worked out as several of the Ford Focus drivers have moved up to the big engine midgets.

Williams still races against mainly teenagers and he admits it’s tough to keep up with the younger drivers. “These kids they clean my clock,” he said.

But Williams has had his share of success and looked to be on his way to winning a recent race in Bakersfield, Calif., before he had mechanical problems.

He also said the young drivers he races against couldn’ be nicer. “They’re respectful,” he said. “They’re like altar boys.”

Williams has also been successful enough to qualify for the nationals. Fifty-four drivers from the nation’s six divisions have qualified for the event. The dirt race will be held Saturday, Sept. 17 at Limaland, Ohio, and the asphalt race will be held on Sunday, Sept. 18 in Anderson, Ind. All the drivers must compete in both races.

While he’s competing in the nationals, Williams will stay with his friend, Bob Harkey, who has raced in the Indianapolis 500. Because of the support of friends like Harkey, his wife and sponsors such as Carson Dodge/Chrysler and Les Schwab, Williams is able to continue to race.

Williams said he has promised his wife he’ll quit “when my age is my car number,” which is No. 74.

But Williams admitted he doesn’t know if he’ll keep his promise. “It depends on how I feel,” he said.

He did admit, though, he may have to eventually cut back on his schedule. By the end of this year, his season will include 40,000 miles of traveling. But for Williams, it’s worth it.

“The good Lord gave me a second chance at life and I’m having a ball,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. It beats working in the garden.”